Side Trip: Catalina Island

I was born and raised in Southern California so it’s unbelievable that I’d never been to Santa Catalina Island until two weeks ago. I’ve been to five continents and to islands all over the world—from Hawaii to Hong Kong and the Azores to the Cyclades—yet never to an island that’s only twenty-two miles from Los Angeles. So, when I heard that Catalina Express was offering free high-speed ferry rides to people on their birthday, I figured it was about time I finally went.

One of eight Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California, “Catalina” as it’s known by locals, is home to roughly 3,500 full-time residents and attracts nearly a million tourists every year. (The other islands are mostly uninhabited nature reserves; four of them are part of the National Park system.) Catalina became famous after chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought controlling interest in the Santa Catalina Island Company in 1919. He transformed the island’s only incorporated city of Avalon into a posh retreat for the glitterati of the day. Catalina also famously hosted Wrigley’s baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, for their spring training from 1921 to 1951.

As our catamaran pulled into Avalon harbor, I was immediately struck by how charming the town was. How could I have waited so long to come here? Located on a crescent-shaped bay, surrounded by chaparral-covered hillsides, Avalon looks like it belongs on an island in the Mediterranean. A promenade wraps around the bay and is lined with restaurants, bars, cafés, hotels and shops. The buildings are kind of a hodgepodge of architectural styles built over the last century—everything from Spanish colonial and Art Deco to Victorian and Queen Anne. In some areas, you’d think you’re actually in New England.

At the far end of the bay is Catalina’s iconic Casino building. The round, Art Deco structure is the equivalent of 12 stories tall. By day, its white façade gleams in the sunshine. By night, lights create a romantic glow that shimmers across the harbor. Built in 1929, the Casino has never been a gambling institution; but rather, houses a grand ballroom where up to six thousand people could dance the night away. Currently it remains a ballroom for special events and also houses a first-run movie theater and a museum showcasing the island’s history.

Whether just for a day trip, a weekend getaway or an extended vacation, there are countless activities on Catalina Island to keep visitors busy. For obvious reasons, the ocean is a huge draw. You can go sailing, fishing, kayaking, parasailing or take a glass-bottom boat tour. Catalina is one of the most popular snorkeling and scuba diving destinations in California. In addition to excellent visibility, the ocean offers sheltered coves, underwater caves, kelp forests, shipwrecks and a vibrant variety of marine life, including the bright-orange Garibaldi (which I learned are the protected state fish of California.)

Back on land, you can’t miss the 407-foot long Green Pleasure Pier, located at the center of the harbor. Built back in 1909, the pier remains a hub of activity today. The Catalina Island Visitors Center is located here, as are several tour operators, dive centers and restaurants.

If you continue walking along the seaside promenade past the Casino, you’ll come across Descanso Beach Club. This is the best place to set down your beach chair, lay your towel out on the sand or claim a patch of the expansive lawn and catch some rays. There’s a full-service beach bar, cabanas and live music too.

Avalon is very pedestrian-friendly, its compact size ideal for leisurely exploring on foot. There are practically no cars on the island—most locals get around town on golf carts, which can also be rented by tourists for roughly $40/hour. A fun, scenic drive can be made up to the botanical gardens and Wrigley Memorial, and then following a loop through the hills of Avalon and back down to the harbor. There are countless perfect backdrops for photo opportunities along the way. Catalina offers miles of hiking trails, including one to the other main town on the island, Two Harbors. Inland it’s possible to see many species of wildlife, including North American bison, which were brought to the island in the 1920s. Adventure-seekers can take the Zipline EcoTour and travel close to three quarters of a mile down five separate zip lines from high in the canyon down to Descanso Beach.

The city of Avalon features several interesting historical sights too. Located on the harbor just before you reach the Casino is the Tuna Club. Founded in 1898, it’s the oldest fishing club in the United States and is listed on the National Registry of Historical Places. Many notable dignitaries and personalities have been members of the Tuna Club including Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Cecil B. DeMille and Charlie Chaplin. On the shore between the Tuna Club and the Casino is the Catalina Yacht Club, also a notable landmark building. A little farther inland—accessible via golf cart or tourist trolley—is the Wrigley Memorial and Botanical Gardens. Offering a commanding view of Avalon Bay, the gardens feature plants endemic to the island and a monument honoring William Wrigley Jr.

How to get there: Catalina Express (catalinaexpress.com) has ferries departing from locations in San Pedro, Long Beach and Dana Point, with up to 30 daily departures. You can also travel via helicopter out of Long Beach or San Pedro (islandexpress.com) or via small plane to Catalina’s airport, the “Airport in the Sky” (AVX).
For more information: Check out the island’s Chamber of Commerce website at http://www.catalinachamber.com

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